What Would It Take For You To Riot?

What would it take for you to start a riot? 

That’s what I keep asking myself in the wake of Baltimore, Ferguson, and all the places in our nation where unrest has erupted lately. What would have to happen to me — what injustice or system of injustices would I have to live under — for me to get so fed up that I started burning and looting? 

I have no interest in taking sides on the topics of police violence or racism. In fact, I believe that side-taking is a big part of the problem. As my generation’s rock-and-roll sage has said, “There is no them. There is only us.” But I am interested in the humanity of the thing; in the questions of morality and injustice that are common to us all. And that’s why I keep asking myself, “What would make me riot?” 

Let’s imagine that we all have a breaking point. Every person on Earth is willing to take extreme measures to protect their family or promote justice. Whether Coptic Christians or bombshelled Palestinians or American civil rights activists, we all have it in us to fight back. Let’s imagine it like a balloon. We can all brush off some level of rudeness or awkwardness; that adds a little pressure to the balloon which we can easily release with a little complaining. We can all absorb some bad breaks and unfairness — poverty handed down to us, traffic stops we didn’t deserve. That adds pressure which isn’t so easily released, but doesn’t bring us to the bursting point. But give us enough pressure and, eventually, our balloon pops. We take action. We fire up change.org, march on Washington, or throw a rock through a window — probably in that order. 

Answer the question for yourself: what would cause you to riot? What if police mistreated someone of your race? Would you watch the evening news story and take to the streets that very night with molotov cocktails? Probably not. Would two such news stories drive you to vandalism? Three? Thirty? What if you sprinkled in some negative experiences in your own life? What would it take to convince you that the decks were stacked against you? That the system discriminates? That the right-headed insistence on opportunity over charity is coming from wrong-hearted greed? That calls for reform weren’t being heard? How long is your list? How many sources would have to pump injustice before your balloon burst?

It’s hard for me to answer that question. It’s hard because I almost can’t imagine a scenario in which I would start a riot. The list of hypothetical injustices I have to imagine stacks pretty high before I think, “That would do it. If those things were true, I would be justified in flipping a few cars.” 

And it’s at this point that I face a question of morality and value, because whatever list of intractable, generational, bigoted injustices it would take to pop my balloon must be exactly the same as those that have popped balloons in Baltimore. To think otherwise is racist, or at the very least, classist.

Either I imagine that I was born with a bigger balloon — a kinder, more forbearing nature, or I must imagine that the volume of injustices those rioters have encountered is greater than any I can imagine. If I believe I am fundamentally better than those people, then I am free to say, “I would never do that.” If I believe, as I have tried to describe before, that we humans are all the same, then I’m compelled to admit, “I would have burned that building if I were in their shoes.” 

Now, lest this post turns into its own sort of molotov cocktail, let me finish with two important points. 

First, I am not promoting rioting. Pondering my privilege and reading about the injustices that have gotten us here have helped me understand the reasons people have become violent. That’s not the same as condoning violence. Burning buildings is not about solutions. It’s about popped balloons. Violence is a product of the past, not a well-considered strategy for the future. 

Secondly, there is an answer. There is a source of civic peace that can extend the capacity of all our balloons, and stop the blows adding pressure to our culture. There is one uniting force that can put us all on the same side under a principled administration of flourishing and shalom. A power so potent, it can flip the script of American unrest. A leader savvy enough to change systems and injustices and hearts. The teachings of Jesus describe a kingdom of unity, fairness and peace. A heart-level reign of ultimate good. An answer to our deepest hurts and injustices right under our noses. 

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” My prayer for Baltimore — for the family of Freddie Gray and the officers who have been charged with his murder, for the families of Walter Lamer Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, for the police whose protection is desperately difficult to render, for the rioters in our cities and the cocooned onlookers in suburbia, for all of us — is that rather than turning our balloons into bombs, we would beat our swords into plowshares, and be called children of God.